By Jana Soeldner Danger
City & Shore PRIME Magazine
Yes, you can. No, it’s not too late.
Even if you’ve been engaging in a less-than-healthy lifestyle, you can still make changes that will help you feel better, reverse damage and make up for lost time.
“It’s never too late,” says Dr. Alberto Vega, a family physician with BocaCare, Boca Raton Regional Hospital’s physician network. “Seventy is the new 50.”
For many people, the secret is to start with small steps. Trying to do too much at once can be a recipe for failure, because you may feel overwhelmed. Instead, find ways to live healthier that you can, well, live with.
No More Couch Potatoes
Even lifelong couch potatoes can benefit from starting an exercise program. “I’ve worked with people in their 70s, 80s and even 90s who have never exercised before and make tremendous progress,” says Joseph Gatz, an exercise physiologist at the Zachariah Family Wellness Pavilion at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale.
“Any small change can be beneficial,” says Robert Herzog, director of fitness and sports medicine for Memorial Healthcare. “It’s about getting started and being consistent. Research shows that exercise can sometimes be as effective as medicine.”
Before beginning, check with your primary care physician for a go-ahead. Then find an exercise style that’s right for you. If you like what you’re doing, you’re more likely to stick with it. “Some people like working out alone,” Gatz says. “Others like the social aspects of a class.”
One easy way to begin: “Start walking,” Herzog says. “Walk at a pace that’s just hard enough so you can talk to someone next to you, but if you went a little faster, you’d have to catch your breath.”
“Take the stairs instead of the elevator,” Gatz says. “Park farther away from the store so you have to walk to get there. There’s a misconception that exercise has to be difficult. No pain, no gain isn’t true, especially with older people.”
Weight training can help counteract the loss of muscle mass that happens as a person grows older and can also help bone health. “Gains can take place well into the 90s,” Herzog says.
A fall can be a disaster for an older person, and balance tends to diminish with age, so it’s important to work on maintaining and improving it. “You can do something as simple as standing with your hands on the kitchen sink and bringing a knee up,” Gatz says. “When you get good at that, take one hand away. If you really want to show off, close your eyes.”
Good news: fitness training can get to be a habit that’s hard to break. “If you initiate an exercise program and maintain it three or four times a week for three months, you’ve probably permanently changed your behavior,” Herzog says.
Pass the Veggies, Please
You’ve heard it before: Lay off the burgers and fries. Fifty percent of your diet should be vegetables and fruit, 25 percent protein, and 25 percent carbs, Dr. Vega says. “It’s the opposite of what most people do.”
Making drastic changes all at once may be unrealistic. Instead, experiment with smaller adjustments: eating vegetarian one day a week, or swapping steak for fish.
No More Lighting Up
One of the toughest bad habits to break is smoking. “It’s a complicated addiction because it’s physical, psychological and behavioral,” says Dr. Dennis Penzell, an associate professor who works with the NSU College of Osteopathic Medicine’s smoking cessation program.
No matter what the smoker’s age, the benefits of quitting start almost immediately.
Within the first 20 minutes, heart rate and blood pressure drop, Dr. Penzell says. Circulation and lung function improve in two to 12 weeks. Within a year, the risk of heart disease drops to one half of what it was. “After five years, the risk of stroke is reduced to that of a nonsmoker, and after 10 years, the risk of lung cancer falls to half of that of a smoker,” Dr. Penzell says.
A smoker shouldn’t be discouraged if he or she fails to quit on the first try, Dr. Penzell adds. “Some people try four or five times before they quit for good.”
Studies show that lack of sleep is linked to a plethora of health conditions, including high blood pressure, heart
disease and diabetes. But getting enough of it can be a problem for older individuals.
“As people age, they tend to have more light, nonrestorative sleep,” says Dr. David Seiden, medical director of the Baptist Health South Florida Sleep Center in Pembroke Pines. “As many as 40 or 50 percent of older people suffer from some kind of sleep issue.”
Fight insomnia by practicing sleep hygiene. Some recommendations: no computer, tablet or phone screens for an hour before bed. Retire at the same time every night, and avoid exercise immediately before bed. A supplement containing melatonin, a sleep-promoting hormone that occurs naturally in the body but decreases with age, may help.
Poor quality sleep can be caused by a physical condition like obstructive apnea, in which the muscles in and around the throat relax and fail to keep the airway open. This can cause the sleeper to wake several times a night, without being aware of it, to restore breathing. A sleep professional can diagnose and treat the condition.
Most sleep medications work by increasing levels of GABA, the neurotransmitter responsible for sleep. A newer medication, suvorexant (brand name Belsomra) does the opposite: It blocks orexin, a chemical that keeps the brain awake, Dr. Seiden says. “It turns off the waking chemical and allows the GABA to take over. It appears to be very promising.”
Those Aching Joints
Joint pain, especially in knees and shoulders, is extremely common in older people, says Dr. Ross Wodicka, an orthopedic surgeon at Holy Cross Hospital. A first-line treatment: weight loss, so the joints don’t carry as heavy a load.
Injections of platelet-rich plasma, a treatment in which the patient’s own blood is centrifuged and platelets are injected into affected joints, can help promote healing. So can microfracture, a technique in which a small hole is created in the cartilage to promote new growth. Cartilage transfer, either from the patient’s own body or a cadaver, is another possibility.
Out with Stress
Stress can be hard on health. One way to tame it: meditation.
No major commitment is necessary. “Even five minutes at the beginning of each day can help you achieve a feeling of peace,” says Roz Reich, who teaches free meditation classes at several Broward County libraries. “The important thing is to be consistent. When you become more aware of your thoughts, you can become more objective about them and stress is not as great.”
Hypnosis may also help, says Pamela Shenk, a clinic hypnotist with Holy Cross Hospital. “If something has you upset, your mind keeps playing it over and over. When you keep repeating negative messages, it causes stress. Hypnosis takes a person on a journey into the mind and helps alleviate the stress, because what the mind believes, the body achieves.”
Under the Covers
A satisfying sex life can be part of good health, and it’s not too late to revitalize yours, says Dr. Cristina Pozo-Kaderman, a licensed sex therapist and administrative director for support services at Sylvester Cancer Center. Older people can and do continue to enjoy sex, although it may require more thought and preparation than in the 20s or 30s.
“Make sex a priority—don’t wait until the end of the day when you’re both exhausted,” Pozo-Kaderman says. “Set aside time to spend with your partner. Fantasize together about new things to try. Visit a sex shop together.”
But remember, age is not insurance against STDs. “Protect yourself,” Dr. Vega says.
Find a Passion
Many older individuals tend to follow routine instead of trying to discover fresh ways to enjoy life. “Find a passion,”Pozo-Kaderman says.“Something that can motivate you to get involved in new relationships and activities. Learning new things is important to your mental and emotional well-being.”